How We Know what We Don’t Know — Relating Empathetic Evolution with Metacognition


Big Sand Lake,Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho

Why are Authoritarians so sure of themselves, while the self-aware are constantly questioning their very existence?  And how do these very large questions fit into the larger schema of social/relational structure?

One of the things that I work with students on is development of metacognition, which is the technical term for “knowing/being aware of what you don’t know.”  At its root, metacognition involves an individual self-assessing knowledge that they have, being aware of knowledge that they do not have, and in its largest form, being aware of the fact that there may be more subjects/areas that they haven’t encountered yet.  In a certain sense, this is a meta-awareness.  Though I was never a big fan of Donald Rumsfeld, one of the most profound things he ever said was his famous ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ comments.  The quote is reproduced below:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld

Rumsfeld didn’t invent the idea of metacognition — that probably goes back to the great Buddhist and Hindu philosophers.  But by packaging it in contemporary lingo, and then being subject to the scorn of the press corps, speaks loudly about the level of media discourse today.  And not in the press corps’ favor.  In an evolved society, knowing what you don’t know is a key toward curing your ignorance — not an insult toward your status.

How can we understand metacognition in terms of empathetic development?  Profound metacognition requires that we have a data-driven, inner dialogue with ourselves — assessing what we know relative to the data available — and at some level, still valuing ourselves at the end of the process — in short, we have to develop empathy for ourselves.

If, after such an assessment, we feel worthless because there is so much we don’t know, that is extremely telling about the social/relational structure we exist in, and how it influences our thoughts.  Accurate assessment of metacognition involves us having a developed, independently generated relationship with ourselves, and at some level, also involves our developed ability to trust our own judgment.  That implies that we have some sense of our own agency (we get to evaluate whether we should trust our judgment, instead of having someone on the outside tell us whether we should trust it or not) and in a healthy, developed form, is a behavior only manifested at v-Meme levels (Performance and above) where independent relational behavior comes into play.

With this definition, we can then see that the Principle of Reinforcement will play heavily into whether we have metacognition or not.  Different social structures will dictate to their constituencies incentives (or disincentives) for metacognitive development and belonging, which then makes it interlocked with empathetic development — our primary practice tool for our own neurological processing.  We have to know that we don’t know how someone else feels in order to make the decision to collect the data to assess their emotional and cognitive state.

This is a complex thought.  But one can really see how this works when examining the different motivators relative to the different v-Memes.  Authoritarians, when confronted with their ignorance, are going to be insulted.  Their status will be diminished — hence the desire for metacognitive development is relatively low.  Those in the Legalistic v-Meme will still be tentative in their recognition of things they don’t know.  They will want the assurance of new, transformative algorithms to take them from their current, known state to newer, unknown information.

It is when we move past the primarily Belief-based social organization structures that we start to see metacognitive development accelerate.  Performance-based organizations, when confronted with unknowns that impede progress toward the goal, will recognize them, and construct mechanisms to solve those unknowns.  Communitarians will recognize unknowns as part of the hidden mystery of every individual in the community, and part of the process of increasing individuation in their community member assessment.

Higher v-Memes than these ratchet up the state, in that they force the observer to confront their position of observation.  Self-aware Global Systemic will start the cycle of asking what one’s self-interest is in knowing/not knowing.  Global Holistic will start the process of understanding the larger connection of not-knowing to potential impacts, short and long.  And just saying — I haven’t gotten this all figured out.

Nothing demonstrates this better than watching an academic audience interact with a speaker.  And I’m not talking students — I’m talking professors.  A speaker can throw out softball question after softball question in order to get the audience to participate.  But professors, by and large, unless they are a recognized authoritywill largely, passively sit and not answer.  They intrinsically know that their status is directly related to always pronouncing the right answer.  Why take a chance, when there may be a trick involved?

There’s a flip side to understanding metacognition.  Aggressive lack of metacognition manifests itself both at the levels of profound sophistication and expertise, as well as in the world of profound ignorance.  The Dunning-Kruger Effect, which I have discussed before in this blog, documents this with Legalistic v-Meme reliability.  The short version is that the ignorant self-assess at a much higher level of competency than they actually possess.  And the highly skilled, if their empathetic development is lower, will self-assess at a much lower level of competency than they have — they take for granted that people don’t know stuff that they, in fact, know.

One can see how this ties back to the level of empathetic connection.  If you’re an expert giving a talk, and you’re not connected to others, you don’t see them yawning.  You just keep going on and on.  And the other side?  There are plenty of examples of aggressive ignorance out there.  They can’t see the faces turning red when they yell — or they don’t care.

Real metacognition is a great way of evaluating true expertise.  Someone with a profound sense of metacognition will readily confess to things that they know, as well as things that they don’t know.  With this thought, one can see how metacognitive development hooks back into the notions of reliability vs. validity.  If someone can recognize their level of expertise, odds are that when they give an answer, it will be valid, subject to the data presented, as well as reliable.  It will be both correct AND reproducible.  Contrast that to someone who is an expert in one thing, but doesn’t recognize their own metacognitive limitations.  For them, every problem is a nail, and they’re the hammer.

Takeaways:  Metacognition is intrinsically tied to empathetic development, which then loops it all back into social structure and the acceptability of admitting you don’t know something.  The Dark Side shows up with the well-documented Dunning-Kruger effect.

Further reading:  The famous book, How People Learndocuments the  pattern of learning that experts use to master other fields.  There’s much to take apart about this book (not surprisingly, written by academics and authoritarians,) but in case you need some level of proof of how this works, it is contained therein.

Further watching:  Perhaps the most profound demonstration of Authoritarian lack of metacognition (in a humorous vein!)  Sergeant Schultz, from Hogan’s Heros!

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